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Lay me down tonight

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There was ice on Lake Michigan. While Billy took a leak, Eula stood at the window and watched it. It frothed back and forth in the waves. Some of it got left on the shore; some of it got pulled back out. Eula’s first year in Chicago, the river froze in patches like dry skin. It still stunk, but it looked like something out of a fairytale; slip between those ice slabs and maybe you’d discover another world.

The sink went on and then came Billy’s voice. “Fuck!” he exclaimed. His voice was hoarse. No wonder; he’d been shouting about the World War in his sleep. “Water’s colder than a witch’s tit.”

“There’s a lady present,” Eula called, putting on her mother’s voice while she eyed the lake.

“Who’s that?” Billy called back. “There someone else here?”

She’d felt like a lady last night, just a little. Down in the Palm Court, Billy’d pulled her chair back from the table. She’d been wearing the fur he gave her. Now the fur was crumpled on the floor, along with her dress (ripped, repairable) and her girdle (perfectly fine, a herd of elephants couldn’t destroy it).

“Not for much longer,” she said. Billy came out of the toilet, rubbing his face with a towel. “I should go.”

“Sure thing, doll,” said Billy. He went over to where his pants were hanging over the arm of the wing-backed chair and started rummaging around in his pockets. “Cab’s on me.”

“I’ll take the train,” said Eula.

“I won’t make you late,” said Billy. He straightened, wallet in hand, and joined Eula at the window. “You planning to walk into Field’s looking like this?”

“There’s a change of clothes in my locker,” said Eula, but Billy was pushing money into her hand.

“Go home,” he said. “Get pretty.”

His stubble felt like it might tear a hole in her cheek, in her neck. No amount of powder would cover that up. She pushed him away. “I need to go.”

Billy stepped back and looked at her, eyes narrowed like he actually hoped to find something. “You singing tonight?” he asked, finally.

“Yes,” said Eula. She turned and started to pick things up, put them on. It didn’t matter what she looked like. A coat would go over the whole mess until April.

“Can I come?” Billy asked.

Eula held her girdle up and he helped her fasten it. Over her shoulder, Eula said, “That depends.”

“If I go to a club, I’m going to whet my whistle,” said Billy. “If your boss can’t stomach that—”

“It’s not that he minds. It’s when Tom mixes your drink wrong and you take a swing at him—”

“He almost knocked my teeth out.”

And you told your father, Eula didn’t say. And he sent Tom a bullet in the mail.

“Tom was in France,” Eula said instead. She rested her hands on Billy’s chest. “He’s jumpy.”

“He’s soft,” said Billy.

Eula wondered whether their thoughts took the same train, in moments like this: the first time Eula let Billy take her out. They’d ended at the Palmer House that night, Billy, drunk, incautiously throwing his father’s name around to get them the honeymoon suite. They drank gin in bed and in the middle of the night Eula woke to Billy’s hands around her neck. His eyes were wide and staring, but unseeing. She clocked him with the empty gin bottle and he sagged off her and she locked herself in the bathroom until what sounded like choking turned to sobbing. In the morning, Billy bought Eula a silk dressing gown.

“Maybe not tonight,” said Eula.

Billy nodded. He crossed back to the bedside table and got a cigarette and lit it. He sat on the bed and watched her get ready. She was lowering her dress over her head when he said, “When are you gonna leave that place? I meant it when I said I could get you a job at The Nightingale.”

“Marshall Field’s is a job,” said Eula, through the fabric. “Singing is something else.”

“One day I’m gonna find out why you stay,” said Billy, “and I’ll break his fucking neck.”

 

Outside Marshall Field’s, Eula paid the cabbie and discovered that Billy had given her $100. Inside, fixed her face and dressed by her locker, then made it to her station.

“Late,” murmured Jimmy as she passed Men’s Gloves. She glowered at him and he winked at her. Later, at lunch, they shared a cigarette in the biting cold of the loading dock and Jimmy rolled up his sleeve to show Eula the bruise encircling his forearm. “There’s more where that came from,” said Jimmy. “Men!”

After lunch, Eula bought them both cashmere scarves.

By the time Eula made it back to her boarding house, the sky was pitch black and the lights were burning on Clark. There was an accident at the corner of Clark and Wrightwood— if she had caught the earlier bus, she might have seen it, definitely heard it: the squeal of tires, the crunch—and the police had arrived, and no one was taking responsibility. Eula weaved between the onlookers and turned onto Wrightwood, which was dark—it would be until the alderman got the lights replaced—but Eula could walk the block in her sleep. Had, in fact, some nights after Martha’s Lounge closed.

The front entryway was dark but light shone from the door at the end of the hall. Kathleen was in the kitchen; Eula could hear her singing. For a long moment she stood at the foot of the stairs just listening. She waited too long. The light in the kitchen went out and Kathleen came out into the hallway.

In Eula’s dreams, Kathleen still spoke to her. They talked about nothing. They sat on the end of Navy Pier and threw bread to the seagulls. The bread took flight and the seagulls froze in the sky, orange. “Evening,” said Eula.

Kathleen started. Eula could see the outline of her jolt. One hand went up to her heart. “What are you doing standing there in the dark?”

“I just got in,” said Eula.

Kathleen moved closer. Her eyes were red, her cheeks flushed, the front of her dress covered in flour.

“Mrs. Gibson is letting you bake?” Eula asked, because she couldn’t ask why Kathleen had been crying. “Her precious oven?”

“She’s gone for the week,” said Kathleen. “Didn’t you know? Her mother in Skokie took a turn.” She moved even closer. Eula could smell her. “Let me by.”

Eula didn’t move.

“Of course you didn’t know,” said Kathleen. “You’re never here.”

Eula was silent. She told herself that she could speak if she wanted to. Kathleen could have this moment, this barbed anger. She was no better than Eula.

“Let me by,” said Kathleen.

Eula stepped to the side.

Kathleen looked at her. “Did you sleep?”

“Barely,” said Eula.

“Who was it this time?”

The old Kathleen didn’t have the words to ask. It was because of Eula she had them now, but it was Kathleen’s own fault for asking.

“Billy,” said Eula. “Still Billy.”

Kathleen made a noise in her throat. She was looking at Eula’s scarf. “How much this time?” she asked. “Or is he going to marry you?” She said, “marry” the way other people said, “eviscerate.”

“None of your fucking business, that’s how much,” said Eula.

Kathleen jerked her head back. “So you’ll be leaving soon,” she said. “Good. It’s best we don’t speak. It’s best we don’t see each other.” And she started up the stairs, leaving Eula alone in the dark.

 

In the fall, hot water in the boarding house came and went. In the winter, there was enough for one bath, one person. It was clear from the lack of steam rising from the metal tub that Eula was not that person. Undressing, she allowed herself to briefly imagine Kathleen, the hair at the nape of her neck curling in the heat, her skin gone pink. She’d have drawn the bath and taken the water knowing full well that Eula was coming home to bathe before she went to Martha’s. Kathleen’d done it anyway. She would’ve sighed in relief when the water hit her skin. The air would’ve been so cold that the water would hurt a little, but Kathleen would just bite her lower lip, hard then soft, and lower herself silently into the tub.

Eula got in the tub already flushed, but the cold water refocused everything, forced a breath out of her lungs like a punch. She rushed through the wash, refused to let her fingers dip below the surface for more than a second at a time. Her robe, when she climbed out, was too thin to do much about warmth. Still, it preserved her modesty as she hurried across the landing to her room and pulled the door closed behind her.

With the blanket from her bed and wrapped around her shoulders, Eula crouched down beside the wardrobe and pulled her father’s dusty old Victrola from where it was walled off behind a pile of magazines. She selected a record out of habit—red sleeve, top of the pile—and laid it down. She turned up the volume as loud as she dared with Miss Jankowski across the hall. Then she sat at her dressing table and waited for the song to start.

They’d listened to records most nights, wrapped up in blankets or sitting on the sill, smoking and waving the smoke out the window and away from Mrs. Gibson’s all-scenting nose. Kathleen asked Eula to name all the singers and she’d repeat the names as if she were learning a catechism. “Annette Hanshaw,” Kathleen would finish with satisfaction, rocking back in her seat a little. “Play Annette,” Kathleen said on nights when they’d shared some of Billy’s bathtub gin (because it came from Billy, even then, only Kathleen didn’t know and Eula didn’t tell her and it ate a hole in her stomach until the day she finally did) and she’d slide closer to Eula on the sill or on the bed and her eyes would go unfocused just before she said, as she always did, “I like your voice better any day.”

Now Annette Hanshaw was singing again and Eula half hoped, when someone started pounding on the door, that it would be Kathleen. But it was Miss Jankowski, holding tight to her black cardigan as though it would protect her from the likes of Eula. “You know why I’m here,” said Miss Jankowski, and Eula nodded, and turned the music down.

 

At Martha’s, Eula sang jazz. She’d tried blues, loving the way she felt her skin swell with it, until Odette took her aside backstage and warned her off. “You can’t have it,” Odette said, eyes aimed over Eula’s shoulder to ensure they weren’t overheard. “You can’t sing it.”

Eula could sing it, she knew, so Odette’s “can’t” must’ve meant something different Eula didn’t entirely understand. But she liked Odette and she didn’t want to steal anything from her, even by accident, so she stopped.

(When she told Kathleen the story later, Kathleen had nodded like she understood. Eula still didn’t understand, but she hated looking stupid in front of Kathleen and so she chalked it up to something Kathleen must’ve learned in her years in the city before Eula arrived, something that, with time, everyone would come to know.)

At Martha’s, there were fewer chairs than there were patrons, and so those who couldn’t claim a table stood around the bar, or leaned in corners around the room. When she sang, Eula liked to find someone in the back, some face partially hidden in shadows, and sing the song to that face.

Tonight, that face was Billy—there, despite everything, and already drunk. Eula could tell from across the room. The way his head jerked up from time to time, as though he were reviving himself. Tom the bartender was shooting her daggers. Eula felt tired.

After her set, she made for the dressing room, where she dodged quick-changing elbows, and then on to the bar, where Billy now was leaning. He had both elbows on the bar, with his hips cocked. The pose revealed the gun inside his jacket. Eula moved to his side and tugged the fabric closer. Not that it mattered. Most would know who he was and many would assume he was armed.

“Three fingers,” Billy was saying. “Not three. I see you trying to stiff me again I’ll cut off your entire supply.”

“What have I missed?” Eula asked breezily. She glanced at Tom, who looked back with an expertly honed expression of stoicism.

“Nothing, doll,” said Billy. To Tom he said, “Two of them, done right. Put it on the tab.”

“We don’t run tabs,” said Tom. “As I explained before the last time—”

“Well, you do now,” said Billy. “Bill me.” He turned his back on Tom. “How was work?”

“Slow,” said Eula. She chattered about Fields, leaving out her conversation with Jimmy, who Billy had met once and now called “the pansy from perfume,” never mind that Jimmy worked in Men’s Gloves and operated a Browning M1917 during the war.

Billy was losing interest. “Okay, okay,” he said. “Same old same old.”

“It’s a living,” said Eula.

“So is The Nightingale,” said Billy.

On stage, Roberta had begun her set. The song was as familiar to Eula as her own name. It came from one of Kathleen’s favorite of her records. “And though my actions seem unruly,” Roberta sang.

“I don’t get you,” said Billy. “I don’t. When we met it was L.A. this and L.A. that. Now I offer to take you to my second cousin’s joint out there and you say no. You say no repeatedly. What’s keeping you here? Family?”

“You know they’re dead,” said Eula. She held the rest close to her chest: if they were alive, you think they’d let me see you?

Billy expelled air from his mouth and leaned back against the bar. “You two-timing me?”

“No,” said Eula. “How many times? No.”

Billy opened his mouth, only to close it again with the applause at the end of Roberta’s song.

In another life, maybe, Eula could have been happy with Billy. Or at least she could have gone to L.A. with him. He could be unkind, yes. Violent. But in that other life, who knows? Maybe he, too, would have been made differently.

“I wanted to go,” said Eula. “When I said those things about L.A. I wasn’t playing a game. I meant it.”

“What changed?”

Eula pressed her lips together and shook her head.

“I still want to be there with you,” said Billy. “I’m sick of Chicago.” He pulled out his cigarette case, pulled two out, lit them with a practiced flick-inhale-flick, and then handed one to Eula. He took a drag. He took another. “And Chicago’s sick of me.”

There was ice on the lake and waste in the river. Mobsters were killing each other on Clark Street, on Lincoln. “I love it here,” said Eula.

“Sure, well,” Billy stubbed out one cigarette and lit another. “You’re one screwy dame.”

Roberta was singing again, something low, slow, and melancholic. “One more drink,” said Eula. “Then I should go. I’m sorry. Early morning.”

Billy signaled for Tom. The drink came, and they drank quickly, watching the stage. Billy rested his hand on Eula’s thigh. “I’ll walk you home,” said Billy.

“No,” said Eula.

His hand on her thigh tightened. “Shy?”

“I live in a boardinghouse,” said Eula. She rested her hand on top of his, hoping he would take it as an invitation to loosen his grip. He did not. She couldn’t risk pulling at his hand because what if he resisted? Then she would lose whatever power she could pretend to have.

“I know where you live,” said Billy. He dug his thumb into the side of her leg.

This was news. Always, Eula was so careful to keep the house on Wrightwood out of anything she did with Billy. He never so much as picked her up on the corner.

“Look at me,” said Billy. Eula squeezed his hand and met his eyes. He released her thigh but left his hand where it was. “I’m telling you I know where you live. I’ve known a long time. You wouldn’t fucking tell me but I followed you one day.”

“I don’t like that,” said Eula.

“Tough,” said Billy. “You know, I followed you there and I waited across the street and I saw you. At some window, smoking with some girl. And you were smiling like…” He pushed his unoccupied hand through his hair.

Eula’s entire body was one tight string. Her heart battered her ribcage. “I don’t like you watching me,” she said and, miracle, her voice was flat and even.

Billy went on as if she hadn’t spoken. “You were smiling like you’ve never smiled at me. Like you’ve never smiled when I’m around. I knew you were using me—I knew that—but.” Again he stopped. He picked up the rest of his drink and knocked it back. He stood. “I never saw that before,” he said.

Tom was back down their side of the bar. If she needed to, she could get his attention without causing a fuss. But to what end? “Listen,” said Eula.

“Can it,” said Billy. “Enough. Stay out of my way.” His hand twitched to his side and Eula could almost feel it: the gun against her temple. She’d felt it before, with other men, before Chicago, but one of the reasons for Billy was that Billy was, compared to them, tame. Billy was tamable. Billy had money to keep her here, looking like a million bucks, waiting for that moment when—

“I won’t go to L.A.,” said Eula. She laid a hand on Billy’s shoulder. “I won’t do that. But that doesn’t mean we can’t—”

With more precision than Eula would have thought him capable, Billy shook her off with enough force to send her rocking. Heads turned their way and away. “You stupid whore,” said Billy. His eyes were as red as Kathleen’s earlier. Just last night Eula had listened to him cry in his sleep. He took hold of her chin. He could break her jaw. He said, “I wish I’d never seen you.” He let her go.

 

When she was new to Chicago—new to the boardinghouse, new to everything but her dreams—Eula went to the planetarium. Out at the easternmost tip of Northerly Island, it sat practically in Lake Michigan, its dome rounded as though any moment it might peel back to take in the stars.

It was a sweaty July night and Eula had nothing. She knew no one in the city, beyond the others in her boardinghouse, who she had seen in passing. As yet, her plan of introducing herself around and singing for club owners had yielded nothing. No further contact, nothing beyond a few pitying smiles and a pinch on the rear. She had an interview for a job as a salesclerk, but she could have done that anywhere. She had to sing, and she had to be seen.

It was cooler in the planetarium. Eula’s steps echoed. Here and there, couples moved between the displays. She found herself watching them. She’d never understood how a woman could watch a man explain what she could see for her own eyes.

Eula followed the curve of a wall. In front of a picture of Galileo, she looked down at her watch and promptly collided with someone walking very quickly in the other direction.

Upright and apologizing, Eula found herself staring into a vaguely familiar, laughing face. “I’m sorry,” said the girl. She laid a hand on Eula’s forearm. “I was watching behind me.”

“Are you being followed?” Eula asked. Something about the girl invited a play-along.

“Yes,” said the girl. “By my date. My sister arranged it. He’s dreadful. I abandoned him on the moon.”

“You made good time,” said Eula.

“Thank you,” said the girl. She glanced behind her again. “Oh!”

Before Eula could get her bearings, the girl was shouldering them through a curtain and into a dark recess in the wall. She yanked the curtain closed behind them and held a finger to her lips. Around the finger she mouthed, “It’s him.”

Eula nodded. The recess was small, the walls tight around them. She found herself aware of the other girl’s scent: something like talcum powder, only more… An odd word came to mind. Alluring.

Eula turned her attention to the walls. With the curtain closed again, the walls glowed with patterns in some kind of luminous paint.

“The constellations,” whispered the girl. She brought her fingers to the one closest Eula’s head and traced it. “Cassiopeia.”

In the near blackness, her face glowed. “I think I know you,” said Eula.

“Yes,” said the girl. “I think you’re right. We live in the same house.” She extended her hand. “Kathleen.”

 

The wind was blasting down Wrightwood by the time Eula managed to leave Martha’s. Every few steps she’d stop and look behind, convinced that Billy was watching, following, but there was no one. The streets were deserted. All right-thinking people were at home in bed.

The door to the boardinghouse was double bolted and Eula’s fingers slipped on the keys in the cold. It would be her first night at home in a long time but even before, even when she still came and went with regularity, the others were always doing this to her: going to bed and forgetting her alone outside with keys that barely turned.

The second key was stuck in the lock. Eula twisted back and forth but it wouldn’t budge. Her fingers were numb. She took the cashmere scarf from around her neck and wrapped her hand in it. She tried once more to turn the key. Nothing, and when she removed her hand, a tearing sound signaled the scarf had been caught. Eula hesitated, then kept pulling. The scarf ripped down the middle. Half hung from her hand, the other fluttered in the door. Eula kicked it. Stood back. Rubbed her hands together. Tried again.

Nothing.

She started to cry. She hadn’t cried in months, and it surprised her. She had mistaken the tightness in her throat and chest for cold, not upset, and now here it was, pouring out her eyes and mouth. She was sobbing a little. She tried to stop and couldn’t. “Let me in,” she said, for something to say.

There was a sound from within: a lock turning. Eula froze. Another lock, then the door swung open to reveal Kathleen.

She was wrapped in a dressing gown that had once belonged to Eula. Her feet were shoved into the wrong slippers. She said, “I heard you.”

Eula collapsed forward. She hugged the ground. Kathleen pulled her the rest of the way in and pushed the door shut. She was shushing Eula and doing up the locks again. Eula realized hazily that she was sobbing, still. They weren’t the rather high-pitched, showy sobs she used to produce; they came from somewhere lower, involuntary.

“Hush,” Kathleen was saying. “Shhhh.” She sat down beside Eula on the floor. “You’ll wake the house.”

Eula pressed her hands to her mouth.

“You’re all right,” said Kathleen. She rested a hand on Eula’s back and began rubbing it up and down. “You’re all right.”

They sat like that for minute or hours, Kathleen rubbing and hushing, Eula sobbing, until the sobs turned to sniffles and the sniffles dried to profound embarrassment.

Eula got to her feet. “I,” she began, and found she had no idea how to go on.

“Come with me,” said Kathleen. “Upstairs.”

Together they climbed the stairs. When Kathleen steered Eula past her room, Eula couldn’t bring herself to object, or wonder. The door to Kathleen’s room was open and a light was on in the corner. “Get undressed,” said Kathleen. “I’ll get your pajamas.”

With Kathleen gone, Eula peeled off her clothes. She dropped her coat and her dress and her slip and her girdle and her stockings and her underwear. She would have continued if there was anything left to drop. She wanted to burn it all and start again.

Kathleen knocked on the door before entering. If she was surprised to see Eula naked, she didn’t show it. “Here,” she said, holding out pajamas. “These looked like the warmest.”

Eula put them on. While she put them on, she tried to probe her feelings, to understand why her reaction to a key stuck in a door was complete breakdown. She didn’t get much of anywhere before she was crying again. No sobs this time, just wetness, and a sense of washing out to sea.

Kathleen was there with a handkerchief when she finished buttoning the top. “Here,” said Kathleen. “Now into bed.”

“What about you?” asked Eula. Her voice was hoarse, as though she’d been shouting for hours.

“The same,” said Kathleen. “Lights out.”

In the dark, huddled up under the blankets with Kathleen, everything was strange and familiar. Kathleen’s feet were the same blocks of ice they had been months before. The streetlight cast the same shadows on the wall. Eula could feel every inch of her body on the mattress. “Kathleen,” she began.

Kathleen let out a sound like a teakettle and rolled toward Eula. She buried her face in Eula’s neck. “Sugar,” she said. She said it in Eula’s ear. “You’re running me ragged.”

 

Four months after Eula moved to Chicago, she booked her first gig. It was at a place called Sal’s. Everyone knew the owners were connected. Eula didn’t care. It was the beginning, just like Chicago was the beginning. She wouldn’t be here forever. First Sal’s, then somewhere better, then somewhere even better, and then somewhere warm. Los Angeles, maybe. Maybe a bungalow for two.

Kathleen was taking tickets for a late movie at The Biograph, but Eula could wait. It was her own good news but she pulled flowers out of a garden on Barry and carried them home to arrange in that chipped vase on Kathleen’s nightstand. She went back to her own room and waited, and when she heard Kathleen’s feet out on the landing, she didn’t wait very long before following her to her room.

It had happened, somehow, along the way. It was new. They opened each other’s mouths on the regular; they climbed inside and hid. Kathleen was holding the flowers when Eula came in and she didn’t put them down to kiss her. “What’s all this?” she managed to ask eventually, when they were curved next to each other on top of her bed, shoes kicked off.

Eula slid an arm across Kathleen’s waist. “Good things, honey,” she said. “Finally. This is my show.”